On Monday, 22 January, the government of Bangladesh announced that it was postponing the repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar (Burma), which was set to begin on Tuesday. The delay comes after intense advocacy by international human rights and humanitarian organizations regarding the deeply flawed process, which may include potential violations of the 1951 Refugee Convention. The government of Bangladesh is currently hosting more than 868,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled successive waves of atrocities in neighboring Myanmar and face persecution and internment in “transit camps” if they are forced to return.
Last week Rohingya community leaders within the refugee camps in Bangladesh protested and put forward a list of demands for the Myanmar authorities to meet before the refugees are able to consider voluntary return. These include official recognition of the Rohingya as one of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, access to citizenship (most Rohingya have been rendered stateless by the Myanmar authorities), as well as the opportunity to return to the farms and villages in Rakhine State that they were forcibly displaced from.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has expressed concern that the Bangladesh-Myanmar repatriation process does not include an official role for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is mandated to ensure that refugee operations are consistent with international law and protect human dignity. While the government of Bangladesh has expressed its willingness to include UNHCR in the repatriation process, it is unclear if the Myanmar authorities will permit this. Speaking in Geneva on Monday, UNHCR Head Filippo Grandi criticized the proposed repatriation process as lacking a sufficient monitoring mechanism or guarantees regarding the safety of returning Rohingya refugees.
While the temporary delay in the repatriation process is to be welcomed, the entire agreement should be reviewed. Repatriation of Rohingya refugees should only take place after the Myanmar authorities have committed to repeal all discriminatory state policies, provide a path to citizenship, and demonstrate genuine progress towards holding perpetrators of atrocities in Rakhine State accountable. Any repatriation process should also include a key role for UNHCR. The UN Security Council, which failed to act in relation to the mass expulsion of more than 688,000 Rohingya since August, should urgently adopt a resolution stressing that these conditions are essential and must be met.
On Sunday, 21 January, demonstrations were held in major cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to demand free and fair elections and for President Joseph Kabila to step down. Although banned by the authorities, the demonstrations were supported by the Catholic Church and took place after Sunday Mass. In response, the security forces fired tear gas into some churches and attacked the demonstrators. At least six people were killed and dozens wounded, including a UN human rights officer. The demonstrations occurred three weeks after similar protests resulted in nine people killed.
The DRC government must respect the right to freedom of assembly as enshrined in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government should investigate all allegations of the security forces using deadly and excessive force and hold perpetrators accountable. During this week’s African Union Summit, member states should also urge President Kabila – who continues to rule despite the fact that his constitutional mandate expired in December 2016 – to take meaningful steps towards ensuring a peaceful transition of power, including through holding credible elections during 2018.
Last week the government also announced that it was engaged in renewed military operations against armed groups in the eastern DRC, including targeting the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in North Kivu. The ADF is suspected of killing 15 UN Peacekeepers last month and has been responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths since October 2014. Clashes between various armed groups and security forces in eastern DRC resulted in widespread displacement during 2017, prompting the UN and humanitarian partners to launch a $1.68 billion appeal last week. This is the largest aid appeal ever launched for the DRC.
The threat of nuclear war between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the United States dominated global media attention at the end of the last year, with President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un trading insults and threats. However, a new report released by CARE International, analyzing international media coverage during 2017, found that the humanitarian situation in DPRK was the most under-reported crisis in the world.
Due, in part, to a crippling drought, approximately 18 million people in North Korea rely on government food aid. Consequently the World Food Programme has reported that at least 70 percent of the country’s population remains food insecure, a situation that is exacerbated by the fact that the DPRK government severely restricts the access of international humanitarian organizations to the country. Independent media and civil society are banned while food supplies, including aid, remain tightly controlled by the government.
As North Korea remains largely isolated from the rest of the world, efforts to address crimes detailed by the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry, which published its findings in February 2014, have been unsuccessful. The Commission detailed abuses committed by the DPRK government, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” The Commission of Inquiry described these abuses as constituting crimes against humanity under international law.
As the international community focuses on the nuclear crisis, it must not lose sight of these widespread human rights abuses. Behind the bellicose threats of the DPRK leadership are 25 million North Koreans whose fundamental human rights continue to be systematically violated.